Thursday, August 17, 2006

Air Travel Not Suited for Actively Mentally Ill

The "be wary" sign for mentally ill travelers came last November when agents gunned down Roberto Alpizar in the Miami Airport. His high anxiety state and unpredictable behavior required but one response in the eyes of federal air marshals, shoot to kill.

Watching security experts train transportation safety personnel on recognizing outward signs of anxiety, an indicator of lying, caused my stomach to sink earlier this week. Many of those same symptoms are exhibited by people in active mental crisis.

This morning that sinking feeling returned as I read of an emotionally ill Vermont woman, expected to be charged with interfering with the crew on a trans-Atlantic flight. While her behavior was disruptive and concerning, the article revealed much about the safety of our air travel system. Authorities apparently disagree as to whether the passenger had any “banned” items in her rather large handbag.

On Wednesday, George Naccara, security director for the Transportation Security Administration for Massachusetts' airport, had specifically denied she was carrying a screwdriver or any liquids such as Vaseline.

On Thursday, Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI in Boston, confirmed on Thursday that Mayo, a U.S. citizen, was carrying banned items in her carry-on bag, including a screwdriver, an unspecified number of cigarette lighters and matches.

They did agree she had no connection to terrorism, but they didn't say how she got banned items past the stepped up U.K. security screens. What is clear is the woman’s behavior.

Passengers said the woman appeared to have emotional problems. Several passengers said Mayo made repeated trips to the bathroom. "She was in a frenzy," passenger Martin Drinkwater of London told The Boston Globe. "She then pulled her trousers and knickers down and squatted on the floor."

This required her to be tackled and handcuffed, for the plane to be diverted, and for several F-15’s to escort it into U.S. airspace. While these strategies may be very appropriate for a terrorist, they are not useful for managing someone in an active mental health crisis. I have doubts that our federal government truly cares about this distinction.

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